‘Once upon a time in Afghanistan’
Labelled “Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan… Record stores, Mad Men furniture, and pencil skirts — when Kabul had rock ‘n’ roll, not rockets,” the essay was put together by Mohammad Qayoumi, current president of California State University, East Bay, who has worked on reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan in several advisory roles since 2002.
When arguments are made over the war in Afghanistan people are often quick to assert that it is a failed state, locked in a medieval mindset; it’s always been a mess and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Qayoumi, in his introduction, quotes Liam Fox recently describing it a “broken 13th century country”, while Backwater’s former CEO said it was inhabited by “barbarians” with “a 1200 A.D. mentality”. People tend to nod along with such statements, but Qayoumi, who grew up in Kabul in the 50s, leaving the country in 1968, thought such descriptions didn’t tally with his own memories of the place.
Decades of war have devastated the country, but it wasn’t always so.
He sought out an old photo book published by Afghanistan’s planning ministry in the 60s, with images mainly dating from the 50s. He has put together a selction of the pictures from the book with commentary for Foreign Policy. What you see doesn’t seem hugely distant from any western country at the time: students at university, nurses and hospitals, factories, modernist furniture, record shops, outfits that wouldn’t be out of place on Mad Men, kids taking part in Scout meetings…
Whether for or against Nato’s continued engagement in Afghanistan, I think Qayoumi makes a good point in disavowing a certain fatalism that seems to effect people involved with the country, Afghanis themselves and outsiders; a sense that the place is doomed to failure and barbarism.
“It is important to know that disorder, terrorism, and violence against schools that educate girls are not inevitable,” he says. “I want to show Afghanistan’s youth of today how their parents and grandparents really lived.”
These photos offer a tantalising glimpse. Click here to see more.
(Picture taken in 1962 at the Faculty of Medecine in Kabul of two Afghan medicine students (Left and Center) listening to their Professor as they examine a plaster showing a part of a human body. AFP/Getty Images)Tagged in: 50s, 60s, Afghanistan, photography
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